The original Dodge Dart ran from 1960 through 1976 and is largely remembered as a compact, though the serious V8 options are what made it more memorable.
From the 60s through the mid-70s, the Dodge Dart had a strong run during the golden era of American cars. US automakers, in this period, would typically offer a vehicle, Dart included, with all manner of body styles from station wagon to convertible, base six-cylinder motors to fire-breathing V8s, and constant updates. For the first couple years, the Dart occupied full- and mid-size segments, but for the majority of its lifecycle, the Dart was a compact-sized sales success.
In 1956, the Dart name appeared for the first time on a Chrysler concept car designed by Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Ghia. Futuristic with a streamlined shape and faired-in wheels, the Dart Diablo achieved a super low drag coefficient of just 0.17. It wasn’t until 1960 that the first production generation would kick off and at that point, the show car looks were gone, replaced with a restyled Plymouth.
Nearly named the Zipp, that first Dodge Dart model year was developed to replace Plymouth in the entry-level segment for Dodge dealers. At the time, those dealers had been selling Plymouths, but a corporate restructuring pulled the brand away. Keep in mind, at this point Dodge was selling three different full-size vehicles with different trim and price structures. So, the Dart became the low-cost option with the Matador at mid-level and the premium Polara occupying the top of the spec ladder.
Three trim levels were offered on the 1960 Dodge Dart, a base Seneca, upgraded Pioneer, and top-tier Phoenix. Depending on trim, body styles included a 4-door wagon, sedan, and hardtop along with a 2-door sedan, hardtop, and convertible. The base engine was a 3.7L slant-6 making 145 hp, though a 230-horse 5.2L V8 and 310-horse 5.9L V8 were available. A column-shifted, 3-speed manual transmission was standard equipment with an optional button-shifted 3-speed automatic. In both cases, power was routed to the rear wheels. The Dodge Dart’s initial sales success led to the discontinuing of mid-tier Dodge Matadors.
In 1961, a Dodge Dart restyle fell flat with consumers referring to the new rear fender scalloping as “ingrown toenails”, unloved reverse fins, and a wrap-around tail light design that projected light sideways instead of rearward. Generation two kicked off in 1962 with a newly shrunken Dart becoming a mid-size sedan based on faulty corporate spying. Chrysler believed crosstown rival Chevrolet was downsizing their large cars when in fact, they overheard discussion of the planned Chevy II Nova compact. Turned out, the full-size Impala were very much available leaving Dodge dealers with a brief hole in their lineup.
While Chrysler slapped together the large Dodge Custom 880 to satisfy upset dealers, the Dodge Dart continued down the mid-size road with a polarizing front-end design featuring quad headlamps split between a dual-plane front fascia. Body styles stayed the same as generation one, but trim levels became Dart, Dart 330, and Dart 440. A new unibody “B” platform was adopted with Chrysler’s torsion bar front and asymmetric leaf spring rear suspension layout that was well received for its solid handling. Aimed at sanctioned drag racing, the 415-horse 6.8L “Ramcharger” V8 also debuted in the Dart lineup.
Just one year later in 1963, the Dodge Dart finally moves into its final, compact segment size with a length of 196” and wheelbase of 111” versus the original 1960 model that was 14” longer with an additional 7” between the wheels. The four-door hardtop body was dropped and trim names became 170, 270, and GT. On the design front, dual lamps replaced quad headlights and under the hood, there were two slant-6 engines available. The following year, a new 180-horse 4.5L V8 with a 2-barrel carburetor was added as the top-spec option and for the next few years, the V8 options grew in output.
1965 was the final year for gen-three Darts and saw a high-performance “Commando” version of the 4.5L V8 featuring a 4-barrel carb, more aggressive camshaft and other upgrades to produce 235 horsepower. Other notable milestones this year was the availability of air conditioning, disc brakes, front safety belts and the Dart Charger. Based on a Dart GT, the Charger was fitted with the Commando engine, premium trim and the first application of that storied badge.
The fourth and final generation of Dodge’s Dart began in 1967 with an all-new design, upgraded steering system, wider front track, and redesigned K-members that could handle larger engines. A new, dual-circuit brake system improved safety to go along with the latest federally required equipment like a collapsible steering column and additional dash padding. The station wagon was eliminated, though the 170 cubic inch slant-6 remained as the standard motor with a slight power bump. Base trim became simply the Dart while the 270 and GT models continued to sell successfully. So much so, the new Dart passed compact vehicle sales from fellow Detroit automakers Ford and GM.
A bevy of souped up V8 options showed up in 1968 lead by a 230-horse 5.2L V8 engine that replaced the 4.5L small block. The Commando was bumped by a 5.6L variant cranking out 275 horses and a new GTS model arrived with the option for a 6.3L big block. Then there was the absolutely wild Hemi Dart, which was effectively a factory-built dragster. Only 80 were made with a 7.0L Hemi V8 rated for 425 hp and 490 lb-ft of torque. Dodge noted their ability to do the quarter mile in 10 to 11 seconds at 130 mph while simultaneously insisting the little screamer was strictly for sanctioned drag racing.
Minor grille and trim updates were applied in 1969, but a more extensive refresh in 1970 helped the Dodge Dart more closely resemble the full-size Dodge lineup. The convertible was discontinued this year and the Swinger nameplate first appears on the 2-door hardtop as the most premium option with front disc brakes, a heavy-duty suspension, and bumblebee stripes. Also in 1970, the base 170 CID slant-6 was replaced by a 198 CID variant with the option to upgrade to 225 CID.
The following year, Dodge got a hold of Plymouth’s Duster and performed classic American badge engineering to produce the Dodge Dart Demon. Sporting a cartoon devil holding a pitchfork, this predecessor to the modern Challenger Demon featured a blackout hood, 340 CID power plant, and 4-speed manual. By 1973, the Demon named was dropped in response to Christian groups’ complaints about the name and devil character. Overall, the Dart Demon sold far fewer units that it’s cousin Duster, which is reflected in current collector car values of this unique V8-powered variant.
It was also in 1973 that the huge front bumpers instituted to comply with new federal safety regulations made their way to the Dart. Additional measures on this front included side-impact door beams and new emission control devices. A new, spool-type engine mount was put in use that limited engine roll to 3° and a “Quiet Cab” package brough extra sound deadening insulation and exhaust quieting measures. A quirky “Convertriple” option was also available this year that came with a folding rear seat offering ample storage and metal sunroof making it three-cars-in-one, a station wagon/convertible/compact according to the marketing department.
Federal regulations continued to evolve and required a large rear bumper be added to the Dart in 1974 to meet new impact standards along with a combined shoulder-lap safety belt. The theme continued in 1975 with catalytic converters added to certain models, a newly reinforced roof fitted on 2-door hardtops to meet crush requirements and an improved energy-absorbing steering column added across the lineup. At this point, the 225-ci slant-6 was the standard motor and the 360-ci V8 continued to be fitted on top-spec Dart Sport models.
1976 marked the final year of the original Dodge Dart with little fanfare. Front disc brakes became standard equipment to meet more stringent US federal requirements, a new steering wheel design broke cover and a new, foot-operated parking brake was equipped. By spring of 1976, the Dart was gone, replaced by the Dodge Aspen.
While the Dodge Dart name was briefly resurrected from 2012 to 2016, it was a front-wheel drive, Fiat-derived compact sold in North America by the Fiat Chrysler tie-up of the time. This was a far cry from its rear-wheel driven forebear with muscle car ambitions, backed up by mammoth V8 power plants. So, it’s little wonder that when folks speak lovingly about a Dodge Dart, they’re talking about the original.